Magnifying Innovation

May 3, 2011 · by Ken Sanders

Leverage the benefits of technology by taking appropriate lessons from other industries while keeping A/E/C-specific best practices in mind. And don’t forget to take a healthy dose of skepticism as needed.

For the past decade, the most often cited mantra with regard to building information modeling (BIM) and integrated project delivery (IPD) has been “Build buildings like Boeing builds airplanes.” And why not? Boeing designed the 777 entirely on a computer. There was no physical mockup: The first plane assembled was flown. This new process was more efficient than older methods, resulting in less waste and faster delivery. Why can’t we make buildings this way?

Assessing and appropriately borrowing best practices from other industries is a worthwhile exercise. More than a decade after the 777 took flight, however, Boeing is seeing very different results in the design and delivery of its latest jet, the 787 Dreamliner, which is three years late and has resulted in $2 billion in write-offs for the company.

The contrast between Boeing’s original and recent experience presents an opportunity to assess key contributors to the success — and failure — of an integrated delivery process enabled by BIM and virtual collaboration technology. What ingredients produced such starkly different results?

It wasn’t the quality of the technology. By any measure, the software, hardware, and networks used by Boeing today are far faster and more capable than those of a decade ago. It wasn’t the form of agreement. Boeing is essentially a turnkey developer acting as an integrated owner/designer/builder, and the same contractual framework did not ensure the same result.

Boeing has acknowledged that two key decisions — each of which was intended to accelerate design innovation and increase delivery efficiency — made things worse. First, Boeing outsourced a much higher percentage of design and manufacturing work to other companies, ostensibly to lower delivery costs. As a result, the design and construction process became highly fragmented among a diffuse network of subcontracting firms. The trusted long-term supplier relationships that Boeing had enjoyed for years were exchanged for lower-cost outsourcing to a larger network of suppliers. Some of those suppliers delivered, and some did not.

Second, to achieve aggressive fuel efficiency goals, Boeing pushed the envelope of materials innovation, developing new types of composites to reduce the plane’s weight and increase its flight distance. As it turns out, the complex, real-world behavior of these materials exceeded Boeing’s ability to simulate them ahead of time. The problem was not the simulation technology but the engineering assumptions. The decades of real-world performance feedback available during the design of the 777, which was built using conventional materials, was simply unavailable for the new 787 composites. (A/E/C design teams striving to use BIM tools to predict energy performance may recognize this disconnect between engineering assumptions and real-world experience.)

As Boeing CEO Jim McNerney publicly acknowledged in 2010, “We lost control of it, both at the supply chain and engineering level. With benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we’d have done more of it ourselves.”

Despite better technology and the same agreements, Boeing suffered tremendous cost overruns and schedule delays due to the erosion of a trusted partner network and the lack of sufficient engineering data to inform reliable simulations. As A/E/C firms continue to adopt BIM-enabled integrated delivery methods, these are important lessons.

Magnifiers of Innovation

Does Boeing’s 787 experience mean we shouldn’t borrow innovative ideas from other industries? Does it mean there is a limited future for BIM and integrated delivery in our industry? On the contrary: Both are here to stay and tremendous opportunity lies ahead.

We need to adapt ideas and leverage technology in ways that are appropriate to the nature of our business, our clients, our work, and our organizational cultures. And that means recognizing how our industry and our profession are unique. For example, while Boeing mass produces products from highly customized components, our industry creates highly customized design solutions from largely mass produced products. The economies of scale, delivery methods, and regulatory environments in which we operate are dramatically different. And despite the best efforts of some software vendors to convince us otherwise, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the A/E/C industry.

At Gensler, in the process of delivering more than 1,000 BIM-enabled projects during the past several years, we’ve seen a number of ideas emerge as magnifiers of innovation and client value within integrated delivery teams that leverage BIM and virtual collaboration tools.

Organizational diversity. Essential to any creative ecosystem, diversity of experience and perspective (and a shared respect for that diversity) is what encourages design teams to borrow and apply innovative ideas from other disciplines. Examples include how retail merchandising impacts the design of sports arenas and transit stations, how employee mobility trends affect the footprints of commercial office buildings, and how hospitality design concepts influence hospital planning. Innovation often emerges from these intersections — ideas gleaned from one discipline or project type to another. The same organizational diversity that embraces such cross-fertilization lends itself to new types of collaboration with engineers and builders as team members become adept at looking beyond their own silos of expertise.

Team agility. Agility starts with recognizing that smart, talented, insightful people will often surprise you by applying tools and methods in value-creating ways you didn’t predict. Innovation can’t be master planned. What you can do is hire the best people you can, set clear direction, establish responsible boundaries, motivate, and then monitor and measure what happens.

Gensler clients sometimes tell us it’s hard to recognize our work. We are proud of that. What we design for one owner may look quite different than our work for another because we believe it’s the owner’s project as much as our own. To achieve successfully blended outcomes, we need individuals and teams who are talented and agile, people who listen well and are skilled at interpreting and applying what they hear.

Team agility also means not getting bogged down in processes that are too rigid and inflexible. In a recent talk titled “Leading Innovation: Process Is No Substitute,” Ryan Jacoby, the head of IDEO’s New York practice, emphasized that while well-defined processes are well and good, they don’t assure innovation, and in some cases they may provide a false sense of security.

Optimistic leadership. Personally, I’ve never subscribed to sound bites such as “Innovate or die” or “Only the paranoid survive,” which are intended to motivate through fear. Although there is an element of truth to each (from the standpoint of not taking success for granted and recognizing that today’s innovation can quickly become tomorrow’s old news) cultures of innovation cannot be constructed on a foundation of anxiety. Innovative ideas emerge from optimism, not insecurity.

This principle has been particularly important as the industry has navigated the most recent economic cycle. Watching how individuals and organizations responded during the past two years has been instructive. Did they confront reality with optimism or fear? Did they see an opportunity to prepare for new types of success and emerge stronger or simply avoid failure? Employees who remained optimistic during the downturn may be your best future leaders; organizations that did the same may be your best future partners.

Process simplicity.
Agile teams need to calibrate design and delivery methods quickly for projects of all scales, types, and budgets. In the early days of integrated delivery, successful case studies typically involved complex building types requiring rigorous coordination that provided budgets and scale that could absorb inclusive participation and learning curve costs. These included hospitals, labs, data centers, and airports. The question today is how to scale these innovations more broadly, leveraging them not just for blue chip, ambitious projects but for all projects, including the very modest. A key requirement for mainstream scalability across a diverse ecosystem is process simplicity.

Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, spoke at January’s Design Futures Council Leadership Summit on Innovation and Technology. There, he highlighted three simple attributes of an innovative process as defined by U.K.-based retailer Tesco: Better for customers, cheaper for Tesco, and simpler for employees. Alas, for A/E/C firms today, BIM-enabled integrated delivery usually provides the first benefit, often the second, but rarely the third.

Most developers of technology still tend to make their products more complicated than necessary, preparing for all possible permutations of use instead of the most likely ones. At the same time, early adopters of technology typically have a high tolerance for its complexity and fragility. But in the transition from early to mainstream adoption, unnecessary complexity must be discarded.

The phenomenal success of Apple’s iPad is a case in point. The product’s appeal can be attributed in large part to three things: the removal (instead of addition) of features; integrating software, hardware, and services in ways that simplify and enhance the user experience; and an attractive price point. Through this formula, the iPad has attracted new generations of users, both young and old, and created a blue ocean market for Apple. In its first 12 months of life, the iPad alone produced an annual revenue stream equivalent to that of a Fortune 200 company.

Simplification remains a significant challenge and an unfilled opportunity for Autodesk, whose extensive collection of BIM tools remain too complex, too fragile, and lacking in robust interoperability to achieve the usability the industry needs for everyday application. The company’s growth-via-acquisition strategy has resulted in too many tools with too many functional overlaps and will require years of additional work to synthesize into a cohesive and integrated whole.

These are not fatal flaws to the adoption of BIM-enabled integrated delivery nor Autodesk technology, but tool complexity and fragility continue to create unnecessary costs for practitioners and owners. In the meantime, design teams need to align their adoption of technology to the functional capabilities of tools as well as trusted and reliable engineering data (lest we forget lesson two from the Boeing case study).

Timing is Everything

One rallying cry of IPD that deserves a bit of healthy skepticism is the assertion that every party involved in a project needs to be participating from day one. While accelerating the involvement of key participants — including builders and selected subcontractors — can be valuable in many cases, the approach must be carefully balanced based on the value of leadership and contributions by each.

Last year, I attended a USC-sponsored conference on integrated delivery. During one presentation, a builder shared a familiar pinwheel diagram identifying all the partners working together during conceptual design on a small health care project. Among the dozen subcontractors involved was a drywall installer. Curious, I asked, “What value to the owner is provided by the drywall installer during conceptual design?” The builder couldn’t explain beyond the notion that having everyone at the table as early as possible was a prerequisite of true IPD.

This might feel good, but it is not a responsible way to spend an owner’s money. Participation within a collaborative process must be thoughtfully calibrated to the contributions made and value created by the participants. This is particularly important on projects of modest scale and budget.

For example, as part of optimizing the sustainable performance of projects of all sizes, we’ve found that a number of small, simple work efforts — understanding the climate context, the energy use intensity of comparable building types, and the relative value and return on investment of different energy saving features and systems — are extremely useful to undertake before a designer ever touches a napkin or a BIM model. And many firms, including ours, have found that engaging enlightened MEP engineers, subcontractors, and fabricators earlier in the design process can significantly enhance sustainable performance and eliminate waste.

At the same time, project teams can experience diminished — in some cases, negative — returns in getting too many players involved too early. Effective integrated delivery means deciding not only what to do and when to do it but also what not to do and when not to do it. Value and ROI emerge from carefully matching process and participation with the sequence of decision-making; more and earlier is not always better.
A Few Best Practices

Our experience has reinforced a number of best practices common to the most successful integrated delivery projects. Some may sound familiar, but all have shown to be useful to integrated design and delivery teams:

•  Always start with the aspirations and knowledge of your client — not just their project-specific goals but also their organizational culture, their beliefs and values, their decision-making capability. Discuss these openly before you dive in. Establish not just conditions of satisfaction but conditions of delight: What will it take to deliver more than the owner expects? It’s essential that every team member, including owner, designer, engineer, and builder, understands these conditions.

•  Develop and strengthen your relationships with trusted partners — both organizations and individuals — beyond project-specific interactions. Know their capabilities and clearly establish your strategies and expectations ahead of time, including the emotional intelligence required for effective collaboration. Strong, long-term partnerships with consultants, contractors, subcontractors, fabricators, manufacturers, and suppliers are essential to the ecosystem responsible for producing successful projects.

•  Embrace both early and just-in-time decision-making. Late decisions are always costly; premature decisions can also be expensive. When construction costs are falling or technology is rapidly changing, locking in procurement decisions early can deprive an owner of best value. Because the world often changes at a faster frequency than project delivery cycles, focus on making fully informed decisions at the right time, which may mean accelerating some and deliberately postponing others.

•  Embrace a simultaneous tight/loose approach to methods and tools: BIM project standards that are tight enough to ensure high quality and efficient re-use of information; methods that are loose enough to preserve team agility and accommodate multiple project types, scales, and clients.

•  Consider incentive compensation approaches that are directly aligned with the conditions of satisfaction or delight. Enlightened teams intuitively understand the best incentive is the opportunity to do a client’s next project, but owners who have a deliberate strategy of spreading the work around may consider this an effective alternative. The real payoff is the clarity of expectations and relative priorities, which benefits everyone along the way.

•  Insist on transparency of decision-making, budgets, estimates, bids, and itemized costs. Information opacity and lump-sum bundling work in opposition to the principles of integrated delivery and only encourage gaming.

•  Create what Design Futures Council senior fellow Barbara White Dyson calls “the safety zone.” She points out, “All projects are deeply dependent on team members’ contributions, and every team member has to be willing to participate fully in developing project ideas.” The fair and trusted behavior of project leadership — including the owner — directly affects team and individual behavior, including striking the appropriate balance of risk-taking.

These ideas are the opposite of a checklist and must be interpreted and customized for each owner and project. They can be expressed through a variety of contract forms, including traditional two-way agreements, builder-led design-build, designer-led design-build, CM-at-risk, turnkey, and multi-party agreements.

Our experience is that the form of agreement is one of the least important factors of integrated delivery success. No agreement will rescue a team from poor relationships, adversarial behavior, or a failure to understand and empathize with the owner, their aspirations, and their decision-making process. Choosing the right partners is an order of magnitude more important than the form of agreement (as you may recall from lesson one in the Boeing case study).

Unwritten Future

As BIM and virtual collaboration tools assist integrated teams in enhancing design quality, improving delivery efficiency, and increasing overall value to owners, it’s also helpful to recognize that technology by itself never provides enduring competitive advantage. Ongoing improvement in price and performance continues to lower the barrier to entry to new service providers whether large or small, local or global. And remember that a perceived differentiator of today can easily become a commodity of tomorrow. A few characteristics worth keeping in mind:

•  Technology is a leveler, allowing small, agile design firms to collaborate virtually and mimic the capabilities of larger integrated firms.

•  Technology is an enabler of new methods of delivery and collaboration among owners, designers, engineers, contractors, and fabricators.

•  Technology is a magnifier that can increase the productivity and quality of a well-organized, collaborative process. However, it can also do the opposite when applied to a disorganized process.

•  Technology is a connector. A new generation of design professionals is leveraging social media technologies to build virtual communities of expertise and learning organizations. Internet-based technologies such as instant messaging, desktop videoconferencing, and project-specific Web sites continue to eliminate geographic boundaries of practice.

Today, project teams are combining BIM software, project Web sites, and videoconferencing tools (including high-resolution telepresence systems) to facilitate new types of virtual collaboration on a global scale. Will social media technologies and collaborative BIM tools eventually merge? Will BIM tools be available as Web services rather than software programs? Will integrated delivery practices continue to blur the boundaries of design and construction, enabling the creation of new types of service providers and specialists? The answer to each of these questions is yes.

The timing of each is more uncertain. When it comes to innovation, most people tend to overestimate the short-term impact and underestimate the long-term impact. As Art Gensler noted in his essay “Design and the Everyday,” published in Design Does Matter: “Change is rarely cataclysmic, the everyday is deceptive: we don’t see it changing, but then suddenly we wake up to the fact that real change has occurred. (It often takes a recession to provide the wake-up call.)” It is a perspective particularly relevant to BIM and integrated delivery.

The unwritten future is how BIM, virtual collaboration tools, and other technologies yet to be invented will be integrated in surprising new ways by companies and teams that have built self-sustaining cultures of innovation. Such organizational cultures — not technology and not process and not agreements — are the true, enduring differentiators.


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Ken Sanders is managing principal at Gensler. He has 28 years of experience applying digital technology to architecture and interior design practice and is involved in some of Gensler’s most technically complex projects. Sanders is the author of the book The Digital Architect, winner of an international book award from the American Institute of Architects. He is a member of the Design Futures Council Executive Board.

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